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It's more than just a game

Published on Friday, 08 Jan 2010

Like it or not, people play games at work - and they are rarely pretty. Regardless of whether your colleagues are driven by the need to run ahead of the pack, nail a promotion or win funding for their pet projects, they have, are and will be tempted to engage in sneaky strategies.

No matter the size, scope or nature of any organisational environment, people are only too happy to apply various levels of ruthlessness to achieving their aims, either consciously or unconsciously.

If the thought of dealing with the machinations of the office Machiavelli or simply surviving the daily natter around the water-cooler unscathed leaves you turning hot and cold, you may want to lay your hands on a copy of Games At Work. This work by Mauricio Goldstein and Philip Read shines a light on how we can all reduce office politics in our working lives.

The founder of the Pulsus Consulting Group, Goldstein is an innovator in the field of catalysing organisational transformation and boasts Fortune 500 companies, such as Nestle, PepsiCo and AstraZeneca, on his client list. Read is a human resources whiz who has garnered prestigious awards for his work in Europe and Asia.

The authors recognise that it is in our nature to play games when we are in groups, when stress and anxiety exists and when prizes such as promotions, contacts or favours from on high are to be won.

"Although some cultures promote games more than others, just about every company possesses a game ecology - a pattern of games that form over time and thrive." They say that office games distract people from achieving their mission. As such, they argue, they must be minimised.

Business leaders are advised that, left to run riot, people who play office games can initiate events that may be devastating for individuals, teams and organisations.

"It is crucial to discern the art of gamesmanship from the art of leadership," the authors write. "If we are equipped to do so, authenticity and sustainable results will be ours."

The book is dedicated to helping the diligent reader, whether he or she is a leader, team player or fresh graduate, to pinpoint office games that people most commonly play.

Read and Goldstein say that backstabbing, manipulation, malicious gossip and underhand tactics are all games most people would far rather not encounter.

Some of the worst offenders include the identification and communication of others' mistakes in a nasty effort to win brownie points from those higher up the food chain.

Others include gossiping and grinding rumours through the mill in order to obtain a political advantage.

"Sandbagging", whereby sales forecasts are low-balled as a negotiating ploy, or what the authors entitle the "grey zone", which deliberately fosters ambiguity about who should do what - with the sly goal of avoiding accountability - also frequently rear their heads.

The authors focus on creating tools that help readers become aware of these and other games people play. Once commonly used games have been identified, the authors outline a three-step process that helps the person on the receiving end to deal with them once and for all.

They insist that, just as games take many forms and vary in complexity, they can be responded to in endless ways. Games can be positively reinforced, actively participated in or minimised.

These strategies are reinforced in this book by stories about games and suggestions about how to reduce them - and when not to do anything - and fictional composites based on real-life company games.

The authors examine the power of the chief executive and his or her senior management to influence, originate, diminish or catalyse game playing in their organisations.

Chief executives tend to exhibit game-friendly characteristics such as hubris, narcissism and paranoia, which can be eliminated, they say, by hosting dialogue, building processes and structures that are less conducive to game-playing and starting movements towards action.

They also scrutinise how a fictitious company, the Composite Corporation, succeeds in managing its game playing by using a three-step programme and encouraging greater transparency, straight talking and asking the chief executive to model appropriate behaviour.

The authors believe their strategies are far more helpful than trying to eliminate office games, which they believe would be akin to attempting to stop people from day-dreaming at their desks.

They also help eliminate the deep sense of helplessness most people experience in the face of game playing.

Five insights

  1. Games would be easier for people to dealwith if they were purely conscious activities, limited in number, and overtly played," write Mauricio Goldstein and Philip Read, the authors of self-help guide Games At Work. Unfortunately, people are usually unaware that they are playing games, since these are covert and subtle in nature.
  2. How do we know that a game is beingplayed? ask Goldstein and Read. Signs range from manipulation, where people only tell part of a story, to repetitive bad habits, where they engage in certain types of behaviour in certain situations - "playing their favourite organisational game".
  3. Playing games negatively affects corebusiness activities. While the short-term effect of game playing may seem anodyne, problems lurk beneath the surface. "You may notice that your people aren't bringing the same enthusiasm and energy to tasks that they once did," the authors write. Or you may suspect that the wrong people are being hired and promoted.
  4. Are your eyes wide shut? "Why don'torganisations clamp down on games?" they ask. "More specifically, why don't individual managers stop the game playing in their groups ... or individuals recognise that playing these games has a harmful effect on their productivity and potentially their learning and development ...?" Company culture, individual psychology and personal history all have a role to play. "In organisational settings, games may be part of the culture, so playing them feels right," they say, which is why people are frequently not even conscious of it in the first place.
  5. Opting out of game playing is not thatsimple, say Read and Goldstein. "Although we know that games are bad, the alternative seems worse," they write. They propose that choosing not to play means exiting the game-playing group or company, or by choosing intimacy, meaning deep and honest communication.


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